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The USS Pueblo Incident

On January 11, 1968 the USS Pueblo left its port in Sasebo, Japan to embark on a surveillance mission in the Sea of Japan. Although the U.S. Navy publicly termed the mission a research ship conducting oceanographic studies, the true undertaking of the naval vessel remained clandestine. Planning to monitor and collect North Korean and Soviet electronic communications, in addition to analyzing the naval activity surrounding several major North Korean ports, the crew of the Pueblo and the American government never suspected that such a standard Cold War operation eventually would trigger an international incident.

From the outset, the Pueblo mission seemed doomed for failure. Besides having a young and relatively inexperienced crew, the converted cargo ship suffered critical equipment flaws such as unreliable navigation and communication devices and minimal defense capabilities. Furthermore, since naval intelligence considered the Pueblo’s assignment of minimal risk, the crew failed to receive the intricate support network (both from the U.S. government and neighboring American vessels) a mission considered more dangerous would have received. Hence, when the Pueblo found itself the focus of attention from several North Korean jets and subchasers on the afternoon of January 23, 1968, the crew and its captain, Lloyd Mark (Skip) Bucher hoped such activity was only the routine harassment of an enemy reconnaissance ship rather than the initial sign of an impending confrontation.

Before the Pueblo even began its operation in early January, the North Korean government had issued several warnings against the presence of “espionage boats” lingering too close to its coastline. Despite being over fifteen miles from North Korea, and technically occupying international waters, Bucher and his crew soon realized that the North Koreans intended to fulfill their earlier threats. When men from one of the four vessels the North Korean government had dispatched to intercept the U.S. ship attempted to board the Pueblo, Bucher ordered evasive action and attempted to flee the area. Consequently, a North Korean subchaser fired upon the USS Pueblo, wounding the captain and several other men on board. Realizing his ship could neither outrun nor compete with the heavily armed North Korean vessels, Bucher signaled the surrender of the Pueblo — constituting the first time an American ship had been forced to surrender during peacetime since the USS Chesapeake submitted to the British in 1807.

Once the crew realized boarding was inevitable, they commenced a frantic effort to destroy the classified material on board the Pueblo. Despite the attempts to burn, shred, and even throw sensitive documents into the sea, by the time the North Koreans seized the American spy ship most of the confidential records and equipment still remained intact. To make matters worse, North Korean officials shared the secrets they unearthed from the vessel, including codes and cipher machines that enabled the Soviets to decipher many of the restricted American documents. Blindfolded and bound on their journey across North Korea, the Pueblo crew suffered imprisonment for eleven months. Meanwhile, although initially considering options for retaliation, the Johnson administration ultimately opted to ignore the American public’s thirst for revenge. Fearing the possibility of another war in Asia, Johnson oversaw a diplomatic solution that allowed for the return of the 83 men aboard the USS Pueblo (including the body of the one crewmember killed during the conflict), but not the ship or any of its classified materials. The USS Pueblo is still on the books as a “commissioned ship” in the United State’s Navy Ship Roster. Although all but one of the men thus eventually came home safely, the incident itself symbolized a broader failure of American foreign policy in Asia-an almost casual assumption, evident also in Vietnam, that American military might was invulnerable to the challenge of Asian communists.

Research by Kathleen Johnson
Volunteer for the Cold War Museum

Banford, James. Body of Secrets (New York: Doubleday Press, 2001). Lerner, Mitchell B. The Pueblo Incident: A Spy Ship and the Failure of American Foreign Policy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002).

USS PUEBLO (AGER-2). [accessed 24, July 2002] (www.usspueblo.org).

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